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Powerful Listening
A Practitioner Research Project
on Story and Difference in Adult Literacy


The trick is to create a bridge between my world and the learner’s world, a safe meeting place out there in the open middle of the bridge, with neither of us completely transparent about our learning needs and goals. Both of us, in that moment and however many other moments and meetings we have, come with learning needs and goals…..my heart – is open in a detached sort of way in order to maintain some distance between us in our roles as worker and learner, to things like the similarities and differences between our personal experiences and discerning if and how that is/can be relevant in the 'here and now' of the space we're standing in – out there in the middle of the bridge.

Do you get time to reflect on some of the difficult moments that occur in your work as a literacy practitioner? What about days when you feel uneasy about a class or meeting with a student? Or times when you are surprised by students’ reactions? Or times when you want to say something, but can’t find the words for it? Do you sweep some of these moments of discomfort under the rug as you move on to all the tasks of a busy literacy worker?

From September 2007 until July 2008, nine adult literacy workers in Toronto met each month to reflect on our practice and ourselves as practitioners through the lens of story. We were particularly interested in how practitioners hear and understand learners and each other across multiple social differences.  We wanted to explore how these dynamics either support or stifle learning.   

So much is happening at once in a literacy program as we interact with students, tutors, and colleagues. We work in a context of multiple social differences, including race, class, educational level, ability, and culture. Some of the difficult moments occur in the context of these differences; yet our discomfort with thinking or talking about these differences can limit the possibilities to learn from what is taking place. We made these moments the focus of research.
We approached them with care and without judgement. We learned about ourselves, the ways we work with students and the nature of literacy work. We examined the role of story in adult literacy practice. We focused on practitioners’ stories - what brought us to this work and why we continue to do it.  Examining our own stories helps us to learn more about how we listen to students and ourselves in difficult moments.
The questions:
How are personal narratives are used in literacy programs? How do practitioners experience and understand this?
How do practitioners hear and understand learners and each other across multiple social differences?  How do these dynamics either support or stifle literacy learning?
How can literacy practitioners learn to work with story to foster learning?

Partners: Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Centre Literacy,
Parkdale Project Read
the Festival of Literacies and
the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
Advisor: Nancy Jackson
Funder: Canadian Council on Learning: Research & Knowledge Mobilization Office
Website: Tracey Mollins Watercolours: Michele Kuhlmann Site created: April 2009